Updated: Sep 5, 2019
What may seem like fairly trivial family heirlooms can sometimes put some important aspects of social history into a personal context. I offer guided walks around the canal basin / electric wharf area. When giving these walks I will show and refer to old photos but also some documents which belonged to my great-grandfather Ernest Breakwell.
The first of these documents is Ernest’s 1909 membership card for the Coventry Working Men’s Club.
Coventry WMC was one of the two first Working Mens Clubs in the country. Together with the Walthamstow club it was established in 1860. There is dispute about which was the first.
The establishment of the Coventry Club was very much influenced by the economic conditions of the day. Free trade deals had seen the lifting of tariffs on some continental goods including textiles and watches – hitting the city’s ribbon making and watch making industries hard. The club provided a space where workers both employed and out of work could meet, engage in social and educational activities (doubling up as a “reading room”) away from the perceived profiteering of public house landlords.
Back to Ernest – he was born in 1875 in Birmingham’s Jewelry Quarter (his family home / shop is still there and still houses a jeweler's business) and was to go on to be employed in Coventry as a coach maker. The second of his documents which have been passed down to me is a “National Registration Act” 1915 card which shows that his coach making skills had been applied to the war effort as he was now employed as an “Aeroplane Joiner” - a reserved occupation.
Ernest, like many Coventry workers found that their skills were readily put to military use. The area around Electric Wharf provides an appropriate background to tell some of Coventry’s social and industrial history.
The first British car factory was the Daimler works at the canalside “Motor Mills” which was purchased as a burnt out textiles mill. The mill was situated there to take advantage of coal delivered along the canal from the local collieries. This is also the reason that the electricity generation plant was situated there and why decades earlier the gasworks were situated nearby to provide lighting to the industries and housing of the rapidly expanding districts of Foleshill and Hillfields.
In the build up to and during WW1 car production gave way to the manufacture of armoured cars, aeroplanes (Radford Aerodrome was established in the area) , armaments and all of the accessories needed for a massive military campaign. Skilled workers like Ernest were drafted into war production whilst most of the male population would head to the battlefields. Women moved into the factories to take their place.
My grandma (Ernest’s daughter Emily) was employed at the Humber factory at the age of thirteen to make her own contribution to the war effort. Her (yet unknown to her) future husband would serve at Ypres and the Somme.
In a recent post I mentioned that Albany Social Club held the title of bagatelle world champions in the 1930s. As times are changing so are social trends. The WMCs and works social clubs are no longer at the centre of the city’s social life and many have closed in the last couple of decades (including Coventry WMC). Many of the traditional sports and pastimes are losing popularity – including bagatelle. It is good to know that there is still a league in the city albeit only consisting of six clubs and one pub. That pub is The Humber which my grandama watched being built whilst working at the factory that it took the name from. The Humber works social club was central to here social life and in her teens and early twenties she participated in sports such as women’s football, hockey, tug o’ war and cycling. At her wedding players from the social club formed a “guard of honour” with raised hockey sticks.
Getting back to my grandma’s dad, Ernest – the third document in my possession is an “Introduction Card” issued by the Ministry of Labour Department in 1920. Ernest was now unemployed and had been referred to a potential employer following a request to the office for coach body makers. Unemployment was high and there was a housing shortage post-war. In coming weeks I’ll be looking at how all this influenced Coventry’s political landscape and resulted in times of unrest. I’ll also be looking at the role of Coventry’s social clubs in a bit more detail.
So that was a quick look into the social significance of some old family documents. There must be many more in cupboards and boxes around Coventry which could help to personalise the story of our city – have a look and see what you can find!